This last semester I got to teach a class fully focused on digital storytelling for the first time. I’d been adding units on digital stories and essays to my composition and creative writing classes for many years, but this was the first time I got to design an entire class to explore this material.
IT WAS AWESOME.
I’m still waiting on my course evaluations to see if my students had as much fun as I did, but I can tell you they learned a lot of cool new stuff and the digital projects they created blew me away.
In addition to offering up my syllabus with links to “readings” and technology tutorials, I also want to share some thoughts on my goals for the class, some notes on what I covered in each unit (that might not be clear from just the syllabus) and some reflections on what I would do differently next time. (Or, if there is no next time [SO MUCH SOBBING], what YOU can do differently to make this class better.)
My goal for this class (as with most of my teaching) was to make it as practical as possible. I didn’t want my students to just study other people’s podcasts and animated shorts, I wanted them to learn how to make their own. Given that this class was for creative writers, there’s just not much good in knowing what makes an excellent narrative video game if you can’t actually use that knowledge to create one yourself.
So I divided the course into 6 units, which get progressively more difficult technology-wise, and that build on each other. In each unit, students learn just enough to understand the hallmarks of the genre, what makes a story in that medium “work” and how to build one. Each unit culminated in a capstone project. Because we covered a lot of ground, the term I repeated often was “proof-of-concept.” The projects they made might not have felt fully realized or completely polished, but they mastered the skills necessary to take each project to completion after they left the class.
I do think each unit I covered could be spun-off into its own class, but I really wanted them to leave the class feeling like whole new worlds of story-telling had been opened to them. I wanted them to leave with ideas and options. I wanted them to have a mini-epiphany every couple of weeks where they looked at their work and said “Holy shit. I can’t believe I made that!”
These are the six units:
- Photo Essays
- Twine/Powerpoint choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive narratives
- Web 2.0/Digital Grafitti
- Podcasting (we used Audacity for audio editing)
- Computer Animation (we used Photoshop for art and After Effects for animation because the campus labs offered these programs for free)
- Video Games (we programmed using Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming language made for kids that actually offers some really sophisticated possibilities)
Here are some random notes that might not be clear from the syllabus:
- Did I have to actually learn all this crap to teach it to my students? YUP. And guess what. I fucking loved it! I spent fall semester learning all the platforms, programs and software I would need to demo them to my students and help troubleshoot their problems (thanks, YouTube!). I also made a project in each medium for myself to help me feel confident in what I was doing. Am I total master at any of these? No. But I knew more than them! When we came up on issues that I couldn’t solve, we used YouTube tutorials and web forums to search for solutions. It was probably the most involved course prep I’ve ever done, but it was also some of the most fun.
- In general, this was a multi-genre class and the students were able to choose fiction, non-fiction, poetry or something in between for most every unit. I think the only exception in the photo essay, which i required be an essay.
- Web 2.0/Digital Graffiti is my term for those gorilla lit projects you see from time to time (like poems left as Yelp reviews or flash fiction pieces on Craigslist Missed Connections). During this unit we talk a lot about the differences between public and private art (the different audiences for a downtown mural vs the Mona Lisa) and then extend that to “unsanctioned” public art (like performance art or street art or graffiti). We talk about digital graffiti as a kind of “self-publishing” and questions about access, censorship, etc.
- When we talk about video games, I think it’s important to make a distinction between narrative games and entertainment games. I love Fruit Ninja as much as the next person, but I want them to make a game that will give the player FEEEEEEEEEELINGS. Just wanted to point that out in case it isn’t clear, or in case you’re not familiar with the rise of the personal video game!
- The units build and the skills are largely transferable from one to the next. For example, we use our Audacity chops from the podcasting unit to edit sound for our animated shorts and video games. The thought-mapping we use in Twine pops up again when we code. I think the order could be shuffled up a little, but, in general, I’d keep it how it is.
WHERE IT WENT RIGHT
I tried to make the examples we discussed as a class as close to achievable as possible. Or, in some instances, we spent two class periods discussing “published” (I have no idea what word to use there) work: one day looking at “aspirational” work (Oscar-nominated animated shorts) and one day looking at more “accessible” pieces (animations posted by professional YouTubers). I think this is really important. We all know Serial has redefined podcasting, but there’s just no way your students can make Serial in two weeks. It’s pretty useless to them as a model for their own podcasts. Instead, we listened to clips from RadioLab and This American Life that reflected what they could actually achieve with their limited time and resources.
The projects my students made were, largely, amazing. Every now and then a student would have major time-management issues or just not “click” with the project or technology required to build it and turn in something that was barely holding together, but I think that’s par for the course in any class. What happened more often, though, is that a student would fall completely in love with the medium of expression and turn in something that really went way above and beyond what I required. That was fun to see.
In addition, their reflections often contained variations on this theme, “I had no idea I could actually make a podcast/video game/web project myself and now that I actually know how, I can’t wait to make more!” One student wrote about how, having been raised on cartoons, he’d always wanted to make one himself and that completing his project felt like accomplishing a life-long dream he never expected to realize. I may have teared up a little at that. I’m not made of stone, people!
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
On the whole, I really think this was a successful class and I expect my evals will confirm that hunch. But there were definitely a few things I would do differently next time.
First, I never found a really good way to get them to share resources. You’ll see that my syllabus talks about “tech help groups” where they can ask each other for advice, share helpful tips, etc. It became clear really early on that they weren’t using these. Pretty much no communication at all. So, after asking the class for advice on how to make this a better resource, I switched it to one large Google Group (Oberlin uses Google to host its email). A few students used it now and then, but it was pretty much a graveyard.
This was incredibly frustrating to me because every time we had a “show and tell” day where students shared their projects, they would ask each other in amazement, “How did you DO that??” and the student would email everyone a link to whatever tutorial or forum had helped them figure it out. Or a student would mention a problem they had in their presentation and someone would say “Oh! You just needed to press ‘alt'” or whatever and I would be like THIS IS WHY I MADE A GOOGLE GROUP!!!! WHY AREN’T YOU ASKING YOUR QUESTIONS AND POSTING YOUR HELPFUL RESOURCES ***HEAD EXPLOSION*** But I just couldn’t get them to do it. So that was a bit of a fail.
The next thing I would do differently is I would schedule more “lab” time for learning Photoshop and After Effects. I gave my students a very basic Photoshop tutorial and told them I was fine with all their characters being shape-based stick people, but most of them wanted to be more ambitious than that. I wish I had allowed another day or two for them to work in Photoshop in the supervised lab setting so I could help them figure out what they needed to know based on their individual needs. As for After Effects, it’s notoriously buggy and it’s also pretty complicated. One more lab day would have made a big difference, I think.
Finally, I made a bit of a miscalculation when I was demo-ing Scratch and I had to basically level with them that I didn’t think I demo-ed in the most useful way and re-do the demo next class. That was totally fine and the second demo went great, but I figured I’d mention it here so you don’t make the same mistake.
What I did was basically memorize a tutorial on how to make a simple Brick-Out style game and then walk them through it in the computer lab. That was pretty useless for two reasons: 1. They can watch YouTube tutorials by themselves, duh and 2. They were just doing what I told them to do, but they weren’t absorbing any of the “why”s. I would say, “Now set ‘x’ to 18” and they would set ‘x’ to 18, but they weren’t really learning anything.
A better demo was one that allowed for trial and error and allowed us to think through a problem together. So for take two I started a game where you need to put a key in a lock to open the door and then the students and I came up with the next parts of the “story” together, figuring out what operations we needed to code to make it work. You can see it here. It’s very simple (and silly), but it showed them the process behind building code and that was what they actually needed to learn. Much better.
SOME KIND OF AMAZING CONCLUSION
I don’t really have an amazing conclusion. I loved teaching this class and I hope to teach it again one day. Maybe you’re looking to teach a digital storytelling class, too? If so, here’s my syllabus. Hope it helps!
If you’re just here for the publishing handout and would prefer not to read my rambling lamentations about leaving teaching, here ya go!
This summer will be the first summer since I turned 21 that I won’t be readying syllabi for my fall courses. The details are complex and, frankly, boring, but after a lot of thought, my partner and I decided to say no to another year at Oberlin and move across the country (yet again) so my partner can be closer to his company’s headquarters in San Francisco and our family can (finally) be settled.
To say I have mixed feelings about this would be the understatement of the century. In truth I try not to think too hard about it for fear I’ll cry through all my remaining classes for the rest of the term wondering, Will this be the last time I ever teach new writers?
When it comes to my writing, my imposter syndrome rivals the best. I am in constant self-doubt about my work, my talent, my self-discipline, my voice, my ideas, everything. But I have never doubted myself as a teacher. I’ve had bad classes and suffered the consequences of failed experiments, but (if I can be honest for a second) I am really good at it.
My students learn A LOT about writing in my classes, and I have 12 years of stunner course evaluations to back me up on that. I don’t dabble in the realm of abstraction, I don’t indulge the myths of “inspiration.” In the classroom, we get to fucking work. I am really good at analyzing a story for craft, breaking it down to its component parts and showing my students how they can apply those moves to their own work.
I know this isn’t anything new. This is what good writing teachers have always done. I’m just saying, I’m really fucking good at it.
I also think I’m really good at inspiring my students to see themselves as writers rather than “writing students.” And I do that by treating them like writers, by leveling with them, writer-to-writer. I talk about my own struggles, my own failures, what I’m learning, what I would borrow from a writer we’re discussing, how I would have ruined the story we’re reading by making a different choice.
And by trying, as best I can, to set up them up for a future in letters. Which brings me, finally, to the actual point of this blog post. I feel, frankly, pretty ripped up inside when I think about walking away from the great privilege and great joy of setting new writers on their paths. I’ll never EVER forget the person who did that for me–the fantastic sci-fi writer and fantastic human, Maureen McHugh, who, when I was just a sophomore in college, taught me how to look up a magazine in The Writer’s Market, write a cover letter, stamp my SASE and send my manuscript.
She required everyone in the class to submit a manuscript for publication at the end of the term. Mine got accepted. Because of that, I changed my major, I changed my goals. I am only living the life I’m living today because she not only taught me that publication could be a goal, but taught me how to try.
This is the gift I pass on to my students. Not the guarantee that they will find success, but the tools they need to try. And I’m hoping that maybe, just in case my fears play out and I won’t have any more students to pass this on to, I could pass it on to yours?
So here it is, My Beginner’s Guide to Publishing. It’s a lengthy handout I give to all my students, every semester, no matter what their level is. Even if they aren’t ready for it, I encourage them to keep it. They may feel ready one day and when that day comes, there might not be anyone offering it to them.
It covers cover letters, poetry and prose manuscript formats, notes on electronic submissions, information about how to find markets for their work, sample submissions guidelines, information on how to write a novel query, and a sample submissions-tracking spreadsheet. On “publishing day” I talk them through the process from the writer’s perspective and the editor’s perspective. We talk about rejections (OH MY GOD SO MANY REJECTIONS) and victories (meeting your writing goals! nice rejections! maybe even the occasional acceptance!). We talk about contracts and finances. We talk about agents and the MFA. We talk about whatever they want to talk about.
And one by one, through the years, emails and Facebook messages have trickled in to me from my former students celebrating their first publications in magazines and websites, small and large. They always start the same way, “Dear Aubrey, You probably don’t remember this, but I was in your fiction class and you talked to us about publishing and…”
I remember. I will always remember.
It would be an honor if you’d consider using a version of my handout in your classes, passing this on to your students. If you’d like an editable version, shoot me an email and I’m happy to send it along. Feel free to make changes. Feel free to take my name off it. It would do my heart good to feel like I was continuing to pay the debt I owe to my first writing teacher, the one who gifted me this great life, one I am grateful for every day.
At moments like these, when everything is kind of awful, I find comfort in thinking about the ontological nature of time.
DON’T LEAVE; I’M GOING TO EXPLAIN IT!
There’s this theory in physics, sometimes called the “block universe model,” that time isn’t this ephemeral thing. That events don’t just happen and then disappear *poof* into the ether. Rather, all the moments of our lives, the universe, everything exist all at once. They’re always there, we just experience them one at a time in chronological succession (or something that our brains, pattern-making machines that they are, converts into a kind of linear narrative).
You can think of it like a filmstrip. The whole movie’s there, in the can, the beginning, middle and end. We see the frames one at a time as they pass in front of the projector, but the footage has already been filmed, processed, developed. The movie’s not changing. There’s suspense for us, the viewers, because we don’t yet know how it ends, but whatever that ending is, it’s already there. There’s no real suspense. Just a feeling.
Donald Trump is going to be president in 2017 and, according to the block universe model, he was always going to be president in 2017. The story was already laid out, frame by frame. There was never any hope for a Hillary presidency, not really. Just a feeling in our hearts, something we desperately tried to make real. We were conjuring ghosts that could never materialize.
There are moments in life that feel like hinges, like forks in roads, like diverging paths. Last night was one such moment. It felt like we were going to go into one reality, or another. When I went to bed around midnight, I knew I’d be waking up in a world where everything was different. I had hope that I’d wake to a new world of possibility and excitement, particularly for women and girls. That path felt so real to me; I was sure we were on it. I’d give anything for a glimmer of that feeling right now.
But the truth is, there was no fork. There was no other road. We were always going to walk to this point, watch for a second and then, when we saw there was no other choice, keep walking toward the inevitable.
Now that I’m saying it, it doesn’t sound comforting at all. It sounds pretty depressing, actually. I think why I find relief here is in knowing that we haven’t done something wrong that’s plunged us into a “dark Earth” version of our reality. We haven’t fallen onto the wrong timeline somehow. This is not a mistake.
Donald Trump will be president in 2017. This was always true, we just didn’t know it yet.
But the rest of the story is there, too. We’re still in the right universe, the only universe, our universe. It’s flawed and many of us are in pain and terrible things happen and you can never really know what growls inside your neighbors’ hearts. Things will keep on. The path has already been laid. The only thing to do now is keep walking.
The glow of the projector lights on everything in its proper time. There’s more ahead to see, to experience. There’s room for hope if it brings you joy, but you can leave your fear behind. The story’s already been written. The only adventure is in the discovery.
Barrelhouse Magazine’s Conversations & Connections writing conference is coming to Pittsburgh on October 18! This one-day conference is geared toward providing practical advice on writing and publishing to writers (or aspiring writers) in any stage of their career. I’m so excited that Why We Never Talk About Sugar will be the featured fiction collection at the conference!
Additionally, I’ll be participating in a panel on “Breaking In.” Myself and three other writers will talk about our literary firsts: our first submissions, our first publications, our first books, and, yes, even those first rejections. There are plenty of other panels on writing your character’s dark side, what editors love (and what they hate) and writing about place. Plus, the fantastic Roxane Gay is giving the keynote address!
From their website:
Want to write better? Want to get published? Attending pricey, academic-style, lecture-hall writer’s conferences won’t quite get you there, no matter how good the bagels are.
Here’s what will: a comfortable, congenial environment where you can meet other writers, editors and publishers. You need to speak with the people who make editorial decisions, as well as with others who are trying to perfect their craft, just like you.
You’ll find this at Conversations & Connections, a conference devoted to giving you practical advice on getting published.
There’s still time to be a part of this great event. Click here to read about the conference and everything you’ll get for the (very affordable) price of admission!
Because I just can’t help myself. And because these people are completely misunderstanding evolution.
1. “Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?”
2. “Are you scared of a Divine Creator?”
3. “Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings… Adam created as an adult…”
9. “If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?”
10. “I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said it and BANG it happened!”
11. “Why do evolutionists / secularists /huminists/ non-God believing people reject the idea of their being a Creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?”
12. “There is no in between… the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an ‘official proof’.”
13. “Does metamorphosis help support evolution?”
14. “If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact.”
15. “Because science by definition is a ‘theory’ – not testable, observable, nor repeatable [–] why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?”
16. “What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?”
17. “What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in Salvation?”
18. “Why have we found only 1 ‘Lucy’ when we have found more than 1 of everything else?”
19. “Can you believe in ‘the big bang’ without ‘faith’?”
20. “How can you look at the world and not believe someone created / thought of it? It’s Amazing!!!”
Today I’m vey proud to have essay up at The Rumpus, which consistently publishes the best non-fiction of any magazine or website I read. The piece is called “Birth Story” and it’s about birth stories in general, and one in particular. In many ways, it’s a follow-up to an essay of mine they published last year, “On Pregnancy and Privacy and Fear.” It’s fun for me to see these pieces listed together when you click on my name on the site. It reminds me how much of my life has changed in the last year and how much has stayed largely the same.
Here’s the opening of “Birth Story.” You can read the rest here.
The birth story must always start the same way: with a woman in pain. There’s no avoiding the pain. The pain is how you know it’s beginning. It’s the overture, the epigraph, the amuse-bouche. You sit up straight. You stand up. You walk around. You move as if the pain is something you can twist away from, like pulling your hand from a hot stove. But this pain is coming from inside. This pain is trying to twist away from you. But first it has to come through you. First it has to open you up.
Air Schooner, Prairie Schooner’s podcast series interviewed me about Why We Never Talk About Sugar and weird fiction. You can click hear to listen to me talk about how I discovered the secret truth hiding in the Pinocchio myth.
I will be making a couple of appearances at AWP this year. Here’s where I’ll be and when. Come say hi!
You can now pre-order my short story collection, Why We Never Talk About Sugar! Here’s the publisher’s description, which I love:
Get ready. These are not your mother’s bedtime stories. In this mesmerizing debut collection, Aubrey Hirsch will lead you into the darkest recesses of human life, where hope and longing and love and loss look all too much like one another. Each of these sixteen stories may be filled with its own kind of despair, but they are not despairing as Hirsch enters with deep sympathy into the souls of lonely women (Cheater, Hydrogen Event in a Bubble Chamber, Made in Indonesia), broken men (Leaving Seoul, Advice for Dealing with the Loss of a Beloved Pet), young recruits (The Specialists), and dutiful daughters (Strategy #13: Journal, No System for Blindness). With a hard intelligence, Hirsch considers the toll of heartache (Why We Never Talk About Sugar, Certainty) and loss (The Borovsky Circus Goes to Littlefield, Paradise Hardware) and the simple cost of longing. Taut and tension filled, these stories will transport you into the heart of what it means to be human. But be careful. Hirsch’s compassion arrives on a knife blade. And you just may find your own heart cut open.